From the Archives, 1956: the blood, sweat and triumphs of the Melbourne Olympics

The victory ceremonies in the main stadium were often much too perfunctory. This may have stemmed from the official desire to tone down the strong nationalistic element in the ceremony. However, sometimes the national anthems (most notably the “Star-spangled Banner”) were abbreviated to the point of mockery.

The cinder track at the main stadium received some criticism from American and European runners. “Maybe it was a bit laid by the best man in England,” said one American, “but by the best American and European standards it wasn’t that hot.” Vladimir Kuts complained after his two distance races that the embers were too close on the inside track.

South American boxers complained about the referees, but losing boxers always complain about the referee.

Australian high jumper Charles ‘Chilla’ Porter on his way to the silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.Credit:Fairfax photographic

These are all minor criticisms. But the triumphs of the Melbourne Games were not small – they were big.


Think about the state of the world today. Russia is dismantling Hungary and neither Yugoslavia, Poland nor Romania are happy about it. Britain and Greece disagree over Cyprus; the United States, India, and Indonesia disapprove of Britain, France, and Israel’s actions in Egypt, and Britain disapproves of America’s disapproval. And poor Melbourne has to house them all in the Olympic Village.

However, Melbourne did.

Admittedly, tempers began to fray late this week. Hungarians and Russians made water polo a blood sport; the Americans questioned the integrity of a judge who was not impressed enough with an American diver; and three Irish cyclists trying to fight their way into a road race. Spectators, largely inspired by New Australians, had also become less tolerant of the Russians.

But these flavor anomalies came too late to spoil Melbourne’s record. In general, both athletes and spectators strictly observed a truce.

Part of the credit for this truce – ekecheiria, or “the truce of God,” as the Greeks called it – rests with the athletes themselves. But some of it should also go to the Australian officials who have been guiding the athletes in both the arenas and the Olympic Village. Management of the arena was generally efficient, as was management of the Olympic Village, where 4,500 visitors from 68 countries lived in harmony. The green-uniformed drivers were good, the Press Relations section was good, and the police were good. They managed traffic well and even managed to find a pretext to arrest scalpers.

Now who gets the credit for the honor – the laurel wreath for the laurel wreaths? The chief executive officer, Lieutenant General Sir William Bridgeford? We can certainly credit the military precision of the arena officials and the efficiency of the air force and naval couriers at the stadium to Sir William.

Erwin Zador Was Injured In A Water Polo Incident During The 1956 Melbourne Olympics Between Russia And Hungary.

Erwin Zador was injured in a water polo incident during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics between Russia and Hungary.Credit:Fairfax Archives


The technical director, Mr. EJ Holt? Mr. Holt, an Englishman who was the organizing director for the 1948 London Olympics, brought with him great experience to a formidable technical problem.

“Holt is my golden boy,” said one of the Olympic officials, when asked the name of the only man who had done more for the Melbourne Games than anyone else. But what about Mr. PW Nette, the administrative director? Mr. ES Tanner, Honorary Secretary of the Organizing Committee? Mr WS Kent Hughes, Chairman of the Organizing Committee?

It’s impossible to say. The organization, like the Olympic Games themselves, was a collective effort. It was a combined effort of 4,500 athletes, 2,000 officials and a crowd that rarely numbered less than 100,000 in the main stadium.

The crowd was great, if a little chauvinistic. “They were as good as the mob in Moscow,” said Vladimir Kuts, who should know.

How successful were the Games from an athletic point of view?

Initially, there was some concern about the effect of extended travel and abrupt climate change on Northern Hemisphere athletes. But this concern turned out to be unfounded.

Track and field events at the 1952 Helsinki Games saw eight world records and 19 Olympic records broken or equaled. Athletes at the Melbourne Games have broken or equaled seven world records and 19 Olympic records. Perhaps there is a law of nature involved; in any case, the performance remains almost constant


Five of the seven world athletics records broken or equaled in Melbourne were the work of women (compared to four of eight in Helsinki). Betty Cuthbert tied the world record in the 200 meters set by Marjorie Jackson in 1952; the Australian women’s relay team broke 1.1 seconds off the world record held by a Soviet team; Shirley Strickland broke the world record in the 80m hurdles by a Russian; Mildred McDaniel of the United States jumped three quarters of an inch higher than the Russian world record of 1.75 meters; and Elzbieta Krzesinska, from Poland, tied the world record of 20ft 93/4 in the long jump.

The two world records broken by men were the javelin throw (Egil Denielsen, of Norway, threw an incredible 281 ft 21/4 in – 13 feet off the record) and the 100-meter relay (America cut by three-tenths of a second the old record set in 1936 by that fantastic American quartet of Owens, Metcalfe, Draper and Wykoff).

There are not many world records left that were set before 1948. At the start of the Melbourne Games, these long-lived records were: C. A. Warmerdam’s 1942 pole vault of 15 feet; Jesse Owens’ 100m time of 10.2 seconds in 1936 and his long jump of 26ft 81/4in in 1935; and the 1936 U.S. relay time of 39.8 seconds.

Owens’ 100m time has been matched time and time again, though never officially broken. And now the relay record has been dropped. Only the pole vault and that magnificent lone jump from 1935 continue to defy the current generation of athletes. Once again, as usual in these days of intense competition, there were few outsiders at The Games. America and Russia so dominated athletics that you soon got tired of hearing their national anthems. Perhaps the closest thing to an outsider was N. Read, the New Zealander who won the 50,000m walk.

Overall, the Melbourne Games were as carefully planned and faithfully executed as any of the city’s green parks. Everyone behaved punctually and the favorites almost always won.

But the Games, like the parks, had a lot of charm. There are many things to fondly remember.

If the Games belonged to one athlete, then they belonged to Vladimir Kuts. Who could forget that brave figure, hands clasped above his head, as he trotted through the arena after an effort that would have killed most men?

Jim Bailey Wins The Third Round Of The 800 Metres, 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Jim Bailey wins the third round of the 800 metres, 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Before the Games, Russia had been the play’s villain; yet Kuts, a Russian, was the hero of the Games. This certainly says a lot for Melbourne.

Each spectator will carry their own memories of the Melbourne Games, and it may be too early to put them all into perspective. There was that nerve-racking battle at dusk between the young Negro Charles Dumas and the Australian Charles Porter. I see Dumas still standing there in the twilight, gathering himself for the winning jump.



There was the mesmerizing Olga Fikitova, who when asked if she had been confident in winning the discus throw, replied, “I felt something in my legs that it could be quite good today.” And Ron Delaney, as Irish as his clover-green tracksuit, a tall, thin boy with a long, birdlike face, said softly, “Landy congratulated me and said he only wished I had won the prize. .”

I remember Egil Danielsen’s steel spear flying on and on, as if carried by a mighty current of air; the sound of a guitar coming from the Cuban house in the Olympic Village after dinner, and the Russians and the Yugoslavs playing deadly poker in the rec room; Mimoun kisses Zatopek after the marathon; the Bulgarian gymnast who disgraced herself by falling off the horizontal bar; the bloodied Hungarian water polo player on television; and two green suit figures, Betty Cuthbert and Marlene Matthews, walking hand in hand after running first and third in the 100 meters.


Now it is ready. Olympic torches are giving way to Christmas trees on the city’s storefronts and the IRS has moved into the press room to arrange clearances for foreign journalists.

The Sixteenth Olympiad will be remembered as the period when the Games came to a new continent: the continent of the green circle. And Melbourne will be remembered, not for the greenness of immaturity, but for the young women in green tracksuits, for the green lawns, and for the green sycamores and deodars.

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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